Is it journalism or is it unfounded gossip? The mob finally decides …
I was charged by the magazine to interview another journalist — well, a gossip columnist, which I’m not sure qualifies as a journalist, exactly — but that was my assignment …
Lawrence Singer was his name, and his column had been running in the Kansas City Star for 20 years. In that time, he’d managed to write libelous things about every citizen who had any social standing, and many who did not. No one, however, had been able to pin him down with a lawsuit. Not that there had been a lack of effort to do so.
Singer, who had worked in Hollywood for a decade before coming to KC, said upon moving: “I prefer to work in a nice town, a gentle city, where people are excited and eager to accept scandalous things.”
I wanted to see if that had played out as he’d thought, if the gentle people of Kansas City did receive his gossip well. That was my angle. And I wanted to meet at Sami’s Deli.
One year earlier, Singer had written a column that put Sami’s on top of the Star’s Best Breakfast list, while simultaneously outing its owner, Gene Krantz, the Salami King, as a gay man. The column, for reference, read: Sami’s Deli, the finest in the city, is the Salami King’s castle, but he keeps his Salami Princes at home.
I called the Salami King to run the idea by him.
“Hmm,” he said at first, letting quiet fill his end of the line.
“We don’t have to,” I assured him. “There are other places—”
“No, no. It’s fine,” he said cutting me off.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes. Yes, in fact, it’s great. I’ll have a table reserved for you.”
I was surprised at his sudden enthusiasm.
“Okay. Great. Thank you.”
Singer and I met at Sami’s Deli on Sunday morning.
When I showed up, the Salami King met me at the door. He shook my hand and pointed to a table in the corner with a small ‘RESERVED’ sign on it. I sat down and he brought over a cup of coffee.
He said, “I invited a few others that I thought would be interested in the interview, I hope you don’t mind.”
I looked around the room and saw many faces I recognized. Local citizens, socialites, small-time politicians, businessmen and their wives, gentle people. I nodded, thinking little of it.
Singer walked in the door. The Salami King briskly went over to greet him. Singer saw me in the back, gave me a wave and spent ten minutes glad-handing everyone in the deli before he sat down, smiling the whole time with a big, silly grin on his face.
“You’ve got a lot of friends in here,” I said as he joined me.
“Babe, I know everyone,” he said.
I sat in the corner looking out, Singer had his back toward the restaurant, and I realized that many of the people had been frequent subjects of Singer’s column. There was Evelyn Pollard, the orthopedic surgeon’s wife, who’d over the years had twenty-three cosmetic surgeries, all listed in great detail by Singer in his column. Then I saw Robert Cavanaugh, the gambling addict, by the window eating a large pastrami sandwich and looking gruff from what I could only assume was another all-night craps bender, as had been covered in the column many times before. There was also George Keller sitting with his wife Carol, furtively glancing at Janie Bicknell two tables over, his mistress.
Singer and I bantered about trivial things at first. The man was soft, not terribly overweight, but built like a bag of cake batter. He wore glasses and a good hairpiece and had a distinct way of talking that made everything sound novel and interesting. The Salami King came over with a cup of coffee for Singer and took our order quickly.
“Okay, Lawrence. I’d like to get to the meat of it right away.”
“By all means, please,” he said, sipping off his mug.
“You’ve made a career off discussing others’ personal affairs. Some of your critics have called you a parasite, and most recently, a troll. How do you see your body of work?”
“It’s clear to me that I provide a valuable service to the community. People want to know what happened. I tell them. I’m a simple provider of information. If people weren’t interested in the things I have to say, I’d be off the beat long ago.”
“What about the reputations of people you write about?”
“It’s about honesty. I keep people honest. I help people build stronger relationships with one another. More information leads to better relationships.”
“Come on, Lawrence, how is writing about infidelity and plastic surgery increasing honesty?”
“These are people’s insecurities. They need to be exposed, brought into the light. I call them revelations. It’s practically a religious experience. These people aren’t often willing to discuss it. So I do. As far as I’m concerned, I’m doing my subjects a favor.”
I looked behind him. His subjects were watching our conversation intently.
“Is that why you put their names in bold in the column?”
“That is the point, yes.”
I felt Singer going into auto-response mode. He had certainly been asked these questions before. I switched gears.
“Okay, fine. So, you started writing in the traditional newsroom, before everyone had a phone and camera in their pocket, snapping off videos and posting them to Facebook and everything. How has the internet changed the likes of a gossip columnist like Lawrence Singer?”
Hardly anyone was eating now. Only listening to us.
“The Internet is marvelous. See, in the past, you had to know someone to understand what happened. Or hope that someone like me,” — he pointed into his chest — “wrote about it in their column But now, from the comfort of your own home you can Google anything. Someone called off their wedding? Do an internet search. There’ll probably be a full report on why it got called off.”
The Salami King brought us our food. He put a large stack of napkins on the table.
“You may need these,” he said.
The Salami King backed away from the table and some people started looking at him.
I said to Singer, “The people in this room, Lawrence, you’ve written about almost everyone in here.” Singer was spreading yellow mustard on his corned beef sandwich.
Without looking up, he said, “They’re all better for it.”
The rest of the patrons were now looking at the Salami King, too, who was leaning against the glass counter on the other side of the room. He nodded once, very subtly, but I saw it.
It was very quiet. Oddly quiet. Only Singer chewing his sandwich, that’s the only sound I heard. I began writing down a thought in my notepad.
Something struck the table.
A thick, round slice of kosher salami had landed on the red and white checkered tablecloth.
“Where did that come from?” Singer asked through a mouthful of corned beef, poking the salami with his finger.
I made eye contact with the Salami King. He mouthed the words, watch out.
From the corner of the room Robert Cavanaugh launched half of his pastrami sandwich. It hit Singer directly in the back.
“WHO THREW THAT!” he yelled, spinning around.
Singer began to stand up but a half-sour pickle whizzed above his head and he fell back into his chair lopsided. I covered my head with my notepad.
From the other side of the room, Evelyn Pollard gracefully pitched a block of Swiss toward our table. It grazed Singer’s hairpiece, lifting it an inch. Singer grabbed the top of his head and ducked under the table. I had no idea what was going on.
People were no longer sitting but standing and furiously grabbing handfuls of food off their tables. Time was slowing down and an incoming lox platter sent me under the table, too.
I looked at Singer. “Help!” he cried. Before I could speak, two large matzo balls came rolling in on the floor at high speed. He jumped back into his chair, lifting his feet just as the matzo balls hit the table legs, disintegrating into a sloppy pile.
I lifted my head above the table just enough to see what was going on. Salamis and white fish and slices of rye bread were zipping through the air. It was a fire fight. Singer started yelling unintelligibly. George Keller threw a bagel right into his mouth.
That paralyzed his movement. Singer was stuck, silent and unmoving under the barrage of food. Coleslaw, potato salad, kasha and shells, chicken liver. Hit after hit, it piled up on Singer.
For at least one minute Singer sat motionless in the onslaught. He had given up.
The Salami King sensed this, I think. He put his hands up.
“Enough,” he said. At once, everyone stopped.
Quiet descended upon the kosher deli.
Singer sat there, covered, like he’d crawled out of a New York dumpster. It looked like he’d taken a delicatessen shower. Singer opened his mouth slightly and the bagel fell out and rolled onto the floor.
Slowly, he removed his glasses, attempting to wipe them clean. He smeared cream cheese across one lens, put them back on and stood up.
He plodded to the front door. The Salami King opened it for him.
Singer turned around. “You, you all …” he began to say pointing around the deli. A piece of lox fell from his shirt. Singer sighed. His hand fell back to his side and he walked out of the deli into the morning sunlight.